Four Charged with Marijuana Cultivation Operation in the Domeland Wilderness
FRESNO, Calif. — A federal grand jury returned a four-count indictment today against Juan Carlos Lopez, 32, of Lake Elsinore; Rafael Torres-Armenta (Torres), 32; Javier Garcia-Castaneda (Garcia), 38; Carlos Piedra-Murillo (Piedra), 29, all natives and citizens of Mexico, charging them with conspiring to cultivate marijuana with intent to distribute, cultivating marijuana, and damaging public land and natural resources in connection with a large-scale marijuana cultivation operation in the Domeland Wilderness area in the Sequoia National Forest, Acting United States Attorney Phillip A. Talbert announced.
According to the indictment, between May 1, 2016, and August 26, 2016, Lopez, Torres, Garcia, and Piedra conspired to grow marijuana in a large cultivation operation in the Sequoia National Forest. The cultivation sites contained over 8,000 marijuana plants and were located in the Domeland Wilderness, a federally designated wilderness area about 55 miles northeast of Bakersfield known for its many granite domes and unique geologic formations.
According to court documents, the marijuana cultivation operation caused extensive damage to the land and natural resources. It covered approximately 10 acres and was within the burned area of the 2000 Manter Fire. Some of the new vegetation and trees that sprouted after the fire had been cut and trimmed to make room for the marijuana plants. Water was diverted from a tributary stream of Trout Creek that supports trout. Fertilizer and pesticides were found at the site. Large piles of trash were found near the campsite.
This case is the product of an investigation by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Assistant United States Attorney Karen Escobar is prosecuting the case.
Lopez is scheduled for arraignment on the indictment on September 8, 2016, in federal court in Fresno. Torres, Garcia, and Piedra are scheduled for arraignment on September 12, 2016.
If convicted of the drug offenses as charged in counts one through three, Lopez faces a mandatory minimum statutory penalty of five years and a maximum statutory penalty of 40 years in prison and a $5 million fine. If convicted of the charged drug offenses, Torres, Garcia, and Piedra face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. If convicted of the environmental crime, the men face a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Any sentence, however, would be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables. The charges are only allegations; the defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.